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Why this girl wrestler won’t be put down

RICHMOND, Va. (WTVR) – What is it that drives 16-year-old Jamilia Cunningham of Richmond to always push so hard?

She’s a track star. She wrestles the boys  in the 132-pound weight class for John Marshall High School.

She’s a singer-songwriter, an honor student at Franklin Military Academy and a cadet for the Richmond Police Department.

She gets up at 4:30 in the morning and goes so hard, so fast, her mother can only keep up with her comings and goings by consulting a calendar Jamilia posts on their refrigerator.

The boys on her wrestling team would do anything for her.

The athletic director at John Marshall, Lamont Davis, says she has the fighting spirit of a dog, the heart of a champion and the mind of a leader.  “You will always find her in the right place at the right time, doing the right thing.”

Fellow John Marshall wrestler Jayvonte Richardson says, “That’s how she is on the mat. Whether she loses or wins, she lets a boy know, ‘I’m tougher than you.’”

As Jamilia says her “favorite thing is showing everybody what I’m made of.”

“My daughter has been independent for a long time,” says her father, Richard Cunningham.

Jamilia remembers her first time on the mat.

“Everybody in John Marshall ran into the gym, they were like ‘she’s not going to do it!’ And I put this guy on his back and everybody went and got excited.”

“Okay, wrestling?” her mother, Laconya Cunningham, recalled thinking when her gregarious daughter came home with this latest activity for her busy schedule. “So I was like, okay, we’ll see how it goes.”

“Everybody in her weight class, she just went to and threw them down, got ‘em, pinned ‘em,” recalled John Marshall wrestling coach Keith Ingram. “Pretty much, everybody in that weight class had to move up, or go down.”

“And I was like, okay, she’s serious about this,” her mother recalled.

“I had to make sure they knew girls are tough, too,” Jamilia recalled. “Just because they’re a boy doesn’t mean anything. I can take them.”

There’s this pressing need to push hard.

She says it’s because she lost three younger brothers in a row. Born premature, all lived, and then died.

“It’s like if they were here I want to make sure I make them proud of me,” Jamilia said.

“It’s like she’s living for them,” her mother said. “Everything she does, she does like they actually had a life here on earth.”

Her father said she wrote songs and sang to them.

“When she was young, she used to – I don’t know how to say it – she’d say they’d talk to her,” Richard Cunningham said. “And I said, ‘They’re just your guardian angels. I don’t know if they’re talking to you, but they’re watching over you.’ And she always believed that. That’s how she carries her life. She goes hard . . . like somebody is watching over her. No fear of anything. She’ll try everything.”

“I think they do watch over me,” Jamilia said during a break in the district championships, where she finished sixth. “And as long as they are, I want to make sure they’re proud of me.”

She has her life planned out. “I want to take pre-law at Tech” and then law school in California and, ultimately, a spot  on an FBI SWAT team.

After spending time with Jamilia and the wrestlers, it’s clear they’re like the brothers she lost. No one is going to mess with her as long as they’re around. And she inspires them, challenges them, to push with all their might, to excel in sports, in school, in life.

“She says I should get my advanced diploma, no matter what,” said fellow John Marshall wrestler, Anthony Johnson. “I’m bad at math – she’s going to help me, and I’m going to get my advanced diploma.”

You can see her working harder than anyone at practices, but still finding the time to help with someone’s technique or holding someone’s ankles for sit-ups, quietly urging them to push harder.

“I just want to make a difference,” Jamilia said. “When you grow up with a group of people and you see how they separate and people go their own way and start getting into bad things, you just want to set the example, show other people that they can do it, too. They don’t have to switch over and do negative stuff. They can do what you did.”